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Corfu's Colorful Corner of the World

March 1, 2007 By:
Janet Darbey, JE Feature
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The Venetian fortress which kept 1,800 Jews imprisoned before being sent to Auschwitz Photos by John Darbey
Like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Jewish Quarter of Corfu of Greece is again being returned to its once proud and flourishing state of being.

Corfu governors -- keepers of the rich heritage of this verdant, historic island in the Ionian sea -- have applied for World Heritage status for the old town, which includes the ancient area that was once a thriving Jewish community of more than 5,000 people.

The tall, white-washed Venetian buildings, the sun-drenched cobbled streets, and the tiny dark stores that were once the pride and joy of Jewish tradesmen and their families will be protected from any further devastation and neglect, and preserved for future generations to visit.

In the late 19th century, the Jewish community was comprised of Romaniote (Greek-speaking Jews, Sephardic Jews from Spain, Apulia Jews from Italy and Marranos from Spain). These Jewish communities integrated, and the dialect became a mixture of Greek, Italian and Hebrew languages.

However, during an infamous "blood-libel" episode in 1891, over half the Jewish community left the island, many immigrating to Egypt and Italy. A Jewish girl, Rebecca Sardas, was murdered, and the Jewish community was blamed. As a result of the local witch hunt, the Jewish community was split asunder.

Trades at the time included those of printers, shopkeepers, porters and olive-oil exporters. They all lived in fairly close proximity in the Evraiki (Jewish suburb), the Ovriovouni (Jews Hill) and Ioudaico (Mount Judaic) areas in the old town of Corfu. There were two 16th-century synagogues in use at that time: the old synagogue on Ovriovouni, which was destroyed by German bombing in 1943, and the new synagogue, still in use, on Velassariou Street.

There were also two large Jewish cemeteries in use at that time: the Romaniote one at Avramiou Hill and the Sephardic cemetery, near to Saroko in the town center. Both were vandalized and destroyed by the Germans during World War II. The new Jewish cemetery is close to the Catholic cemetery in Corfu town.

In early June 1944, World War II brought horror and decimation to the Jewish population of Corfu. The Nazi forces, who had occupied the island, removed the Jews from the Jewish quarter to the old Venetian fort, where they were held prisoner until June 10, when they were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Greek Orthodox Heroes
Almost 121 members of the Jewish community were hidden by local Greek Orthodox families, who had historically held the local Jewish community in high regard.

There are currently around 65 survivors of the Holocaust -- and their families -- living in the Jewish Quarter of Corfu. Shops in traditional trades such as olive-oil export, clothing and printing still sell in the cobbled streets of the old town, although these days they are interspersed with tourist gift shops.

The narrow streets still echo to the cries of children and people hailing each other, but the crowds are mostly tourists now, and the greetings are exchanged between Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim alike.

But builders and architects are erecting scaffolding around the old Jewish community buildings. Renovation is starting on the old stores, with bright paint and new signs that proudly proclaim Greek Jewish ownership once more.

Info to Go
The main company that arranges visits to Jewish communities in Greece can be found at: www.elderhostel.org. The company also offers tours of the Jewish communities of Thessaloniki, Athens and Rhodes. Included are all travel arrangements, visits to Jewish sites and museums, and often social events where local Jewish community members gather. Further information about the Jewish communities of Greece and their checkered history can be found at: www.JewishVirtualLibrary.com. This excellent Web site is full of colorful information and descriptive historic accounts; it's well worth a visit.


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